Maybe you’ve heard them in church, the brass bells dinging to the beat of gathered worship, or perhaps on sidewalks as the Salvation Army attempts to ring in passersby — but there’s more to the hand-held instrument.
Handbells, as told by two local choir directors, have a way of making a group of people into one instrument. Set across a long pad, bell (or bells) in hand, members of the choir read from the same sheet music — awaiting a turn in the music. People of all statures and talents, reading music or waiting for their cue to ring, gather in the choir corner to fill worship space with music.
“As long as you have 12 people moving on the same thought process — all it is is a piece of metal with a clapper in it — if you get people to move and think that way, that’s how the sound comes,” St. Paul’s Lutheran Bell Choir Director Lisa Gerwulf said.
Pastors, or other service leaders, who are able to offer somewhat of a future service guide, offer the information to the directors, which helps with music choice, and the musicians play as one. The music, similar to piano with a few extra notes, directs each note-carrier; creating one sound in the whole piece of music.
But it’s not difficult, according to Gerwulf and First United Methodist’s director April Blount, at least to get into. Notes are often color-coated for right and left hand play, which tips off the musicians that don’t know how to play music making handbells a little easier to get into — so long as the bell strikes with the proper technique and at the right time.
“When people join the bell choir for the first time and they’re so hesitate and then they start playing and not only do they enjoy it, they’re actually really good,” Blount said.
Bell ringers, though with separate bells, play cohesively (almost like each person is a key on a piano, but not quite). Blount said they’re more than what people may expect; they can make a myriad of sounds.
“I love the bell, there’s something really special about a group of people working together on the same thing and just having it, because if you’re by yourself, it just sounds ridiculous,” Blount said.
In the church, for the directors, the handbell choir is an extension of worship.
“Just a person listening can hear this light ethereal sound, and then this heavy grounded sound, and then you can throw it back up in the sky and make it light,” Gerwulf said.
At the start of a capital campaign at St. Paul’s, Gerwulf performed “It is Well with My Soul,” a common hymn, which was chosen for its relation to the kicking off the three-year process — denoting the first commitment and theme of service at that time, she said.
“When everything was all said and done, one of our congregates came up to me and she said ‘Thank you for celebrating my birthday with me today,’” said Gerwulf, “and that’s my favorite. You never know who you’re going to touch with the music that is chosen. You feel like you’re doing it for this and for this, where God says ‘Oh no you’re doing it for this.’ That’s the neat thing about it.”
At First United, a ringer does not need to belong to the church. Playing the bells are just different, Blount explains, even for those musically-inclined. Patience and the will to play with two bells (up to three in hand) will bring the music to life — and there are varying methods to techniques that will produce the same sound.
“I haven’t met a bad bell ringer,” Blount said. “I think that people under-estimate their abilities and their capabilities. Even though it’s so different and it does take some time to adapt, it’s not difficult, really anybody can do it.”
Some history shows the bells tolling, like on All Saints Day in the Lutheran religion, or calling upon the congregations for worship, but to Gerwulf the bells’ church-related history has carried them through. Moments of remembrance, gathering and celebrating, “it’s a part of history,” she said.